Jan 282016
 
e-commerce giant eBay head office

Just how mismatched PayPal and eBay were is now becoming apparent since the two companies separated last year.

Yesterday, PayPal beat the street with 23 percent growth in its payment figures along with an additional six million new users. The company’s stocks rose 17% following the news.

For eBay’s investors the news wasn’t so good with the company reporting no increase in US sales over the key Christmas buying quarter despite the National Retail Federation reporting a nine percent gain for the entire industry.

One of the main criticisms of eBay being part of PayPal was that there were no reasons for the two companies to be joined and so it is proving now they have gone back to separate entities.

For eBay, it’s hard not think that the opportunity has passed with the market moving on from the days of households selling their unwanted items to e-commerce now being a major industry dominated by traditional chains and, most menacingly, Amazon.

While PayPal is travelling better its business is still under great threat from other payment platforms, particularly while much of its revenue is still locked into desktop software. Shifting to more API and mobile based streams is going to be essential for the company wanting to compete in a very changed marketplace.

The failed PayPal-eBay venture will go down as one of the great missed opportunities of the first Dot Com wave as both companies were distracted from growing while the industry evolved over the last decade. No doubt some of today’s unicorns will suffer the same fate as they respond to a changing marketplace.

Jan 272016
 
Adrian_Turner_CEO_Australia_Data_61

Could Australia’s poor track record in commercialising research be turned into an advantage? Data 61’s CEO Adrian Turner believes so.

Australian research agency Data61 was formed last year following the science hostile Abbott government’s slashing of research budgets coupled with a merger of the National ICT Australia organisation (NICTA) with the long established CSIRO.

The intention behind Data61 was to create a world leading data research agency. At the time of the announcement then communications minister and now Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull said, “Having a single national organisation will enable Data61 to produce focussed research that will deliver strong economic returns and ensure that Australia remains at the forefront of digital innovation.”

Having been in the role for six month and now, in his words, having his feet finally under the desk, Data61’s CEO Adrian Turner met with the media last week to discuss the directions he intends to take the organisation.

Business in a data rich world

Coming from a corporate Research & Development background and having spent over a decade in Silicon Valley tech businesses, Turner is conscious how industries are being changed in a data rich world.

For corporate R&D model shifting as industries are changing he says, “their challenge is they can’t hire the digital and data talent that they really need.” Turner sees one of the opportunities for Data61 in providing access to the high level expertise large companies are struggling to find.

Giving Data61 is global focus is Turner’s main objective with an aim of capturing a tenth of one percent of the world’s private sector R&D budget, describing how he will sell the organisation’s scientific expertise to global corporations, “we can plug them into the Boeing and GMs of the world and introduce them to the people to short circuit the sales process.”

“We’re going to go around the world where corporate R&D dollars get allocated and convince these companies that Australia is a place where primary R&D can take place,” Turner continued, “we’ve got the talent and we’ve got the capabilities to do the research.”

Good at the basics

Turner highligthts an ongoing problem in Australian science and industry. The nation historically has been good at basic research but poor at getting those developments to the marketplace, something the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Global Innovation Report has regularly flagged.

While Australia ranks at 17 overall in the 2015 WIPO report, the nation’s business community flounders at 38th in the world for its collaboration with researchers and 39th for knowledge and technology output. Put bluntly, Australian businesspeople are not very sophisticated or research orientated.

Adrian Turner puts that down partly to the nation’s being weak at product management, “I think it’s a function of global companies seeing Australia as a sales and marketing outpost so we don’t have the product development expertise.”

Inward looking locals

The nation’s inward looking local corporations are also part of the problem, “for us to succeed as a country we have to have a global mindset. We can’t have the zero-sum mindset that I win if you lose in the domestic market,” Turner continued. “In that sense what we’re doing is creating a product marketing function.”

So to meet Data61’s objectives of meeting its own financial performance targets, developing an R&D ecosystem and having an impact on the nation economy, Turner sees the organisation having to go overseas for most of its partnering with private sector researchers.

Sparking the startups

All is not lost though for Australia with Turner believing Data61 has a role in helping the local startup community develop. “We don’t have the infrastructure in place to support the entrepreneurs to go out and build new business,” he says.

“In Silicon Valley over decades you have this infrastructure, you have this workforce, you’ve got the legal infrastructure, you’ve got capital, all of these things that have built up organically over decades and they stack the odds in favour of the entrepreneurs.”

Data61 was born out of an unfortunate period of Australian politics where for the first time the nation was lead by a government that was genuinely hostile to science. Now the political winds have changed and the organisation has a global focus, it may be possible to reverse the long-term neglect of Australian research and build a new business culture.

Jan 182016
 
Nano_Dimension_DragonFly_2020_produces_PCBs_for_prototyping-444943-edited-height-500

Nano Dimensions may not have shipped a product since it was founded in 2012 but is worth $49 million dollars and was Israel’s best performing tech stock last year reports Bloomberg Business.

It’s not surprising that Nano Dimensions has caught the imagination of investors, the company was founded in 2012 to develop advanced 3D printed electronics, including printers for multilayer PCBs (printed circuit boards) and the nanotechnology-based inks those machines rely upon.

Should the technology prove successful, the application of those printers in fields like rapid prototyping is immense. The company speculates their devices may even get RFID tags down to the magical one cent figure which opens may opportunities in industries like logistics and retail.

In a GeekMe profile of the company last June, the writer even speculated Nano Dimensions could be heralding a disruption to the electronics industry similar to that the music industry faced when home users could burn their own CDs and stream music.

While that – and the speculation that 3D printing of electronic devices will kill Chinese manufacturing – may be some way off, it isn’t hard to see the potential of this technology.

The Israeli aspect of the Nano Dimensions story is interesting as well, with the company receiving a $1.25 million investment from the country’s office of the chief scientist after it was reverse listed onto the local stock market by taking over a moribund company.

For countries like Australia, Canada and the United States which are likely to have many moribund small mining and energy on their stock markets in coming years, such reverse listings may be an opportunity to spark their tech sectors with fresh capital and talent.

 

While Nano Dimensions is still very a speculative venture, the company illustrates a number of possibilities for 3D printing, electronics, the Israeli tech industry and the future of fund raising at a time when the Silicon Valley venture capital model seems to be under stress.

Another fascinating aspect of Nano Dimensions is that it’s one of the new breed of hardware startups, a field that until recently was dismissed as ‘too hard’ by most tech investors. Overall, the Israeli businesses an interesting company to watch for many of the aspects it touches upon.

Jan 082016
 
Microsoft_Office_2010_Launch_New_York_City_Taxis_Web

In San Francisco, the Yellow Cab Company is filing for bankruptcy in the face of mounting insurance costs and competition from services like Uber and Lyft.

For most of the Twentieth Century, having a government controlled market was good for cab companies and those owning the rights to own taxis. In most places though it wasn’t good for drivers and passengers however as wages fell along with the quality the service.

In most cities, the taxi operators didn’t care as their industry was protected and customers didn’t have much choice. The problem was compounded by supine regulators who saw protecting the interests of industry incumbents as taking precedence over making sure operators provided a safe, reliable service.

With the arrival of Uber, this changed and passengers started voting with their wallets. Interestingly, despite Uber X and Uber Pool being illegal in most place, regulators and their political masters found public opinion was firmly against the taxi companies and owners who’d exploited them for so long.

To the horror of the taxi operators, they found the community and the market had shifted against them leaving them exposed to changes they had never expected. Now operators like San Francisco’s Yellow Cabs are paying the price for not focusing on providing a decent service.

For other industries, particularly those which have some sort of barrier to entry through government regulation, the taxi industry’s woes are an important lesson – focusing on service is the key to staying in business, not relying on keeping competitors out.

Dec 042015
 
innovation

Many companies are waiting for an innovation miracle said Autodesk CEO Carl Bass at the company’s final press and analyst conference at the Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas yesterday.

“Change happens when new people enter the market or companies find new ways to do things or they are scared by competitors doing something they can’t do,” Bass said in an answer to a question from a Korean journalist about dealing with changing markets.

“The two things I hear over and over again from customers – you stand back and scream because they are all the same – most of our customers want to innovate,” Bass continued.

Building for sustainable change

“Generally they mean they want to build sustainable, competitive changes. They want to create products that have the ‘Apple Premium’ that someone wants to pay more for because it’s the best product in the category and they want to sustain that for as long as possible.

“The second thing that’s almost universal with our customers is when they have a good idea, they want to get that to market as quick as possible. To the extent we supply the tools to help them fulfil those two big needs of ‘how can I innovate and do something I wasn’t capable of doing?’ or ‘how can I shorten the time between when I think about this to when I can sell this?’ Those are things that will motive people.”

At this stage Autodesk CTO Brian Kowalski chimed in, “there is slightly depressing moment in the innovation conversation where the customer says ‘I really want to transform into an innovative company. Can you help me do that using exactly the same tools, people and mindset I currently have. They are hopeful our answer will be ‘yes, we can help you.”

For those organisations Kowalski had bad news pointing out that creating a corporate environment that embraces change requires all three of the ‘people, processes and technology’ triangle. Just adding a new product over the top of the existing culture won’t change the business.

Sympathy for the corporation

Bass though has a sympathetic view towards those large organisations seeking to change.

“Companies do believe there’s some miracle that happens and one of the things I’ve seen most clearly is this idea among startups and VC backed firms is that big companies are just dumb and unaware,” Bass stated. “There almost no large company anywhere in the world that doesn’t know what is going on the world, some of these companies have whole armies of people whose only job is to figure out what’s new and exciting and interesting.”

“People on the other side don’t understand this, they (big company managers) know what’s going on and what’s different, they may not have the wherewithal to change but the idea that car companies didn’t see changes coming – that they couldn’t see a Tesla – they knew but there were a bunch of reasons why they couldn’t make it to the other side.”

Skilling the next generation

Another aspect that troubles Bass are the skills of the next generation of managers, engineers and software developers.

“The second thing I wanted to say about tools is that I go to a lot of universities and I talk to academics about what’s coming next,” he says. “What depresses me a little bit is the faculties have all sorts of new ideas and methodologies but they are teaching using old software tools. No student I know would want a twenty year old cellphone but they sit dutifully and learn twenty year old software. I think that’s one area they have to change first.”

 

Bass and Kowalski make some important points about the challenges facing organisations seeking to adapt to changes markets, workforces and a rapidly evolving society – it’s not easy and the issues facing all businesses are complex.

Paul attended Autodesk University in Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk.

Dec 032015
 
Autodesk University 2015 Las Vegas

The second day of Autodesk University 2015 in Las Vegas continued the focus on innovation and changing industries, the afternoon innovation session was particularly focused on some of the opportunities being realised in drones, pre-fabricated buildings and lampshades made out of fungus.

Brooklyn based designer Danielle Trofe gave a great demonstration of how she’s using fungus to create a range of sustainable light shades. Interestingly in a conversation earlier in the day with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski the topic of growing products out of Mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus that Trofe uses, was discussed in terms of smart packaging and biodegradable products.

Growing products out of organic material is one of the themes explored in Mercedes Benz’s Biome concept car which proposes to grow the chassis out of seeds. While realising that concept is some way off, Trofe’s Mush-Lume idea shows some products are already at that stage.

Rethinking prefab buildings

Following Trofe was Jos Mulkens, the CEO of Dutch building company Voorbij Prefab, who described how by using sophisticated design tools and 3D printing to make prefabricated building panels they had reduced to the time to fabricate elements from days to hours.

Mulkens gave a good insight into how design and production workflows are being accelerated with modern technology, particularly in replacing manual form makers to make the moulds for the precast panels. Voobij Prefab are flagging a lot of disruption heading for the building industry.

At one the media breakout sessions a group of senior Autodesk managers discussed the trends in design and materials engineering. This turned out to be an interesting session on the limits of current technologies.

Composite technologies

Max Moruzzi, Autodesk’s Principal Research Scientist, is a passionate believer in composite materials and the benefits they promise. However he conceded when challenged by his colleague Steve Hobbs, who joined Autodesk last year with the acquisition of  UK based Computer Aided Manufacturing company Delcam, about the structural properties of composites that we still have a lot to understand about how they behave and fail.

Bringing a touch of English scepticism to the panel, Hobbs pointed out almost all metallic components made by 3D printing require some sort of mechanical, subtractive finishing such as milling or polishing.

Hobbs went onto warn that we risk introducing a “hairball of complexity” into the design and manufacturing industries as people experiment with developing products with materials and techniques they don’t fully understand.

All the panel, which also included Carl White – Autodesk’s senior director of marketing for advanced manufacturing – and Benjamin Schrauwen who leads the company’s Spark 3D printing division, agreed that applying current design and manufacturing methods need to be rethought in the light of new methods being developed.

The limits of 3D printing

It was notable in the panel Q&A around the revelation that 70% of 3D printing projects fail, the panel put this down to the relative immaturity of software and machinery along with the technologies currently being poorly understood. Hobbs observed that for GE to 3D print their jet engine parts they rebuild and reprogram the printers they buy to their own higher specifications.

For the final session CEO Carl Bass and CTO Jeff Kowalski faced a Q&A from analysts and the media, that session was interesting in exploring some of the directions Autodesk sees industry and business heading and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Overall, the Autodesk University has been an interesting insight into the future of design and manufacturing along with the effects this has on other industries. With these technologies at an early stage, it’s a field that is going to evolve rapidly.

Paul Wallbank travelled to Autodesk University in Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk.